Do tenants choose the property or the agent? Traditionally, it’s been the former, but as the number of BTR (build-to-rent) developments increase, that could be set to change. Experience is what will set the best agents apart, says the owner of a premium agency that specialises in city apartments in Birmingham.
“We have retained a great number of tenants over the years - choosing to stay with us as an agent, even when they move to another property,” says Nicola Fleet-Milne. “We know that tenants have the choice between agents when the product is ultimately very similar. In a scheme of 100 units, the tenants aren’t always choosing the property; this is especially true if the tenant already has experience of a local agent or two. If numbers 25 and 48 are the same layout, but managed by different agents, the tenants often default to the one they trust to manage the tenancy to their satisfaction.”
Occasionally, tenants who have vacated a FleetMilne apartment and rented a property through another agency, will then come back again. But it often takes tenants a while to realise their ‘error’. “We let to a lot of young professionals coming straight out of education and we might be the first experience that they've ever had with an agent, so they have nothing to compare us with,” says Fleet-Milne. “When they come back to us, they are apologetic, saying, ‘I thought you were the norm, but now I realise your team actually cares and is on the ball. This is a great experience.’ Some residents have been with us for over 7 years.”
Providing a standout experience has always been FleetMilne’s raison d’etre. Fleet-Milne established her eponymous agency in 2001, when Birmingham was still a fledgling market. “City living was immature in Birmingham, very new. The agents established at the time were not prepared for the boom - Birmingham was a bit of an afterthought for some national agencies, so the service levels and technological preparations were poor,” she says. “I knew I could do better, and I believed the customers deserved better.”
Fleet-Milne aims to prove that the industry can be “a delight” and is diligent about ensuring everyone gets the fundamentals right, no matter whether they’re dealing with landlords or tenants: “Answer the phone, respond in a timely fashion, be respectful of your customers, and be honest about your mistakes.” Fleet-Milne is very clear that excellent service doesn’t mean dropping everything and running over to tenant’s home the moment they call. “It means, "Here's the problem. Work out a solution. Get it booked in. Stick with what you've agreed, and get it done."
She notes that, in lettings, there is sometimes a tendency to treat tenants as though they are an inconvenience. “But tenants are customers. They might not paying us any fees, but they are an integral part of the cycle; we simply can’t exist without them. Just as the landlord expects great service, so does the tenant.”
Has Fleet-Milne succeeded in her quest to better the industry and the experience? The awards shelf would certainly suggest so, but she remains humble in the face of an ever-changing landscape. “We changed the face of lettings in Birmingham city centre very quickly, but the sands keep shifting and you cannot be complacent. New legislation is introduced all the time, tenants don’t pay fees anymore, clients are constantly bombarded with more and more reasons to get out of the BTL (buy-to-let) game, and BTR is sweeping into town. We’d be fools to think we’d nailed it completely. But we keep working hard every day to make sure we stay on track with our mission.”